The Path to Engagement: Lessons from Game Designers: Game Designers Have a Thing or Two to Teach Trainers. Consider Learner Autonomy, Experience Measurement, and Social Interaction for Your Next E-Learning Program

Article excerpt

The computer games industry has seen explosive growth in recent years. Energized by the virulent nature of social networks and the increasing capabilities of mobile devices, gaming is bigger than Hollywood.

The fundamental premise behind most gaming experiences is the journey that participants are taken on--a journey through levels of increasing difficulty toward the eventual mastery of the game. During this journey, players can remain engaged for hours, days, and even weeks at a time. It is estimated that gamers have spent approximately 55 million years of cumulative playing time in the online game World of Warcraft. You might call this total engagement.

Gaming's objective of moving participants toward mastery sounds strangely like the mission statement you might attach to your next learning solution. If your outcomes are aligned, but your engagement tactics are not, then perhaps you are missing a trick.

What could we learn from games that would help us make our online learning experiences as engaging as World of Warcraft, without rendering our own 3D world and filling it with magical beasts and trolls? Following are three key lessons from game design that we would do well to integrate into our next e-learning project.

Define a starting point and objective, but not the path to be taken

One of the fundamental skills in gaming is decision making. In any given game environment, the player will be faced with a series of choices that will influence his progress through the game. Should you turn left or right? Should you throw this angry bird at that pig? And so on. Rarely in games is there a single method for completing a given task; while one path might be the best course of action, many other paths could result in progress toward the same result.

How often do we see this level of autonomy existing within online learning? Not often, I would suggest. Instead, our learners are much more likely to be faced with the dreaded "next" button. This approach fails to give participants the necessary control they require to feel in charge of their own fate. They are simply along for the ride.

It isn't often important that everyone follows the same path when completing a piece of learning; it is simply more convenient if everyone experiences the same journey, whether this suits their needs or not. If you give learners a starting point, an objective, and a method for assessing when they have reached the objective, then you have done enough. Specifying the precise path is unnecessary work for you and unpleasant for them. Keeping the pathway open and flexible allows learners to make the decisions that influence their progress.

Next time you are faced with this sort of challenge, try defining a "mission objective" for your learners and point them in the direction of the resources they will need to succeed. The rest is up to them.

Stop measuring page numbers, and start measuring experience

One of the staple features of most e-learning is the page number, or progress indicator. We're very good at providing this sort of progress report for a learner working through a given piece of learning; it is rare to see e-learning without it.

The page number is a classic example of measuring the wrong thing. Listing page numbers merely gives the illusion of progress while actually presenting the learner with a motivator extrinsic to the learning process. The learner believes that if she clicks the next button x more times, she will have completed the learning. However, idly clicking through pages is rarely the path that leads to true insight. …